It was the “feel good” story at the start of the year. A flock of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) apparently hit or were hit by an Airways jet, an Airbus A320. The plane then had to be ditched in the Hudson River, New York City, and sunk below the waterline.
The flight was US Airways Flight 1549, which took off at 3:26 p.m. on January 15, 2009, from LaGuardia, headed for Charlotte, North Carolina. All abroad were saved by the heroic actions of a fast-thinking, experienced flight crew. The world’s media were transfixed by the story.
For some of us, of course, the riddle of the birds remained.
One of the questions to be pursued was, “What birds were involved in the crash?”
Now comes a strange twist within the answer.
It was clear soon to most investigators that the birds were not anything more unusual than Canada geese (even though, of course, I used it to talk about the historical issue of Thunderbirds and plane hits). Most pointed to New York City’s permanent geese living in nearby wetlands year round, as the avian culprits in the mystery. Knowing for certain the type of geese was deemed critical as airports wished to devise strategies to scare away flocks out of future aircraft flight paths.
But a surprise awaited the forensic researchers, according to news released today.
The Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington served as lead detective, with assistance from Chicago’s Field Museum.
“We try to tell people we’re here for a reason — and this case helps demonstrate that,” said ornithologist John Bates, who works with the Field Museum’s 480,000-bird collection. It includes inch-long hummingbirds, 5-foot ostriches and everything in between.
Rows of cabinets on the 116-year-old museum’s sprawling second floor hold specimens of 90 percent of the world’s 10,000 known bird species. But it was the Field’s collection of 2,700 samples of Canada geese — including some that migrated from the eastern Canada region of Labrador — that was the key to cracking the case.
Field ornithologists sent Labrador goose feathers and tissue to the Smithsonian, where tests showed the birds to blame for the US Airways accident were the Labrador type — not New York varieties that largely stay put year-round on the city’s waterways.
The clincher was a test in which Smithsonian scientists tested stable hydrogen isotope values in feathers — telltale markers that indicate where vegetation eaten by the birds grew. Migrating Labrador geese have eaten grass from different areas than the stay-at-home New Yorkers, and that showed up in the tests.
The findings, published in the June 8 editions of the journal “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,” mean New York airports may have to develop one method to keep migratory geese away from planes and another for the birds that nest in the city.
“A lot of people say ‘who cares about knowing the bird type,’” said Carla Dove, the aptly named program director at the Feather Identification Laboratory. “But that’s critical. The strategies differ according to species. If you have starlings or turkey vultures, you deal with it differently.”
Authorities may manage resident birds by harassing and culling them or modifying their habitat. Dealing with transient birds may require more elaborate methods, including recording their flight patterns or employing sensitive radar that detects their movement over runways.
New York City officials said this past week the city will trap and gas as many as 2,000 Canada geese over the next few weeks.